Monday, June 18, 2012

Daniel Vestal: Laying the foundation for CBF, then building on it

This Friday evening, June 22, at the closing session of this year's General Assembly in Fort Worth, Daniel Vestal will preach his final sermon as executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

This month, Daniel brings to a close his service as CBF's longest-tenured executive coordinator. Patrick Anderson, editor of Christian Ethics Today and a former CBF moderator, will lead CBF on an interim basis while a committee, chaired by George Mason, continues to search for a permanent executive coordinator. On July 1, Daniel Vestal will become director of the new Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership.

Daniel and I are not close, though we have spoken briefly with each other on several occasions in recent years, as recently as this past April, when I expressed to him my appreciation for his statement in response to the suggestion by the outgoing CBF moderator that, once Daniel's successor is named, certain CBF hiring practices be "revisited."

In his statement, Daniel responded that he respects those who disagree with him and believes we should be able to cooperate with each other in spite of our disagreements. However, he does not support the suggestion to revisit CBF's hiring policy, because CBF's role, he said, is to serve churches, not dictate to them, and such a change in CBF's hiring policy would put a strain on many partner churches and CBF's relationship with them.

It was a statement that was typical of Daniel Vestal, gracious and at the same time wise and prudent, in my opinion. I was in total agreement (and I have to admit that it's rare that I'm in total agreement with anyone, including my fellow Baptists), and I expressed my full support of his statement.

In past years, however, Daniel and I have also discussed the connection between our families that goes back many, many years. Though I didn't meet Daniel until recent years, I met his father some 56 years ago. In the fall of 1952, when I was just 1-1/2 years old, my family had moved to Montague, a little town located right next to the more well-known town of Nocona, home to legendary boot manufacturers. My daddy, A. Jase Jones - who then was in the midst of his doctoral studies in Christian Ethics, under T. B. Maston at Southwestern Seminary - pastored First Baptist Church of Montague until we moved to Dallas in 1957, where he led Jewish Evangelism work for Dallas and Tarrant Baptist Associations, as well as the BGCT.

I often heard Daddy tell the story of a revival in our little church in Montague in the spring of 1956, preached by Dan Vestal, Daniel's father, who stayed in our home at the parsonage during that week. In fact, I recently found, in Daddy's files, a promotional flyer for that revival, featuring photos of Dan Vestal, in addition to a biography. Unfortunately, I have no memories of that revival or of Dan Vestal being in our home. I had just turned 5 a few weeks earlier, and my attention was usually on Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, and J. Fred Muggs (the chimpanzee starring on NBC's Today back then), not the visiting preacher! But Daniel's dad was a prominent Baptist evangelist in his day. So our "connection" goes way back.

In 1996, Daniel left a highly successful pastorate at Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston to succeed Cecil Sherman as executive coordinator of CBF. But he was not new to CBF. In fact, he had been the first one to articulate the vision that became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and then was instrumental in its founding.

The morning after losing the 1990 SBC presidential election in New Orleans, Daniel Vestal addressed a Baptists Committed breakfast. Acknowledging that moderates had lost the battle for the SBC, he told the gathering of more than 800:
What we did was right. . . . We spoke to the issues that are crucial to our day: openness, fairness, missions, trust, and freedom. We resisted a political movement that excludes people from decisionmaking, assassinates people's character, questions people's integrity and commitment to the Word of God. . . . We called for a return to our Southern Baptist heritage: cooperative missions, unity in diversity. (Shurden, The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC, 1993, p. 255)
He then called for a "convocation of concerned Baptists," to be convened and planned by the Baptists Committed organization. Daniel writes of his vision for this convocation in The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC (edited by Walter B. Shurden):
Its purpose would be renewal, and in it we could find ways to cooperate for the cause of Christ. . . . We needed a place to be accepted for who we are, true followers of Christ with a worldwide mission vision, Baptists who believe in the Bible but who also believe in the freedom to interpret it.
On August 23, 1990, Jimmy Allen convened the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, and Daniel Vestal - a humble and soft-spoken pastor - delivered a stirring opening address in which he firmly took a stand for Baptist principles of freedom, integrity, and cooperation - and invited the 3,000 assembled to join him.
We've been driven here by a group of folks who have told us they don't want us to work with them in the cause of Christ. . . . They have not only maligned and libelled good and godly people, but they have caricatured and misrepresented others. They would take away our dignity and our freedom. I, for one, will not allow that to happen to me. I, for one, will not give that up. . . . I am driven here to find a people who will respect me even if they disagree with me, and will allow me to cooperate with them in the grand and glorious cause of Christ.

But do not pity me, for I also choose to be here. I choose because I believe in some principles and precepts that are foundational to my life: the priesthood of the individual believer, religious liberty and separation of church and state, cooperative missions based on the autonomy of every church, congregational polity and moral integrity in decision making. I am first and foremost committed to Jesus Christ.
(For more details on these events, I highly recommend Walter B. Shurden's The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement. For a "nutshell" description of these events, based on Shurden's book and other sources, see the three-part TBC Baptist Briefs video series, "Founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.")

Six years later, Daniel Vestal took the reins of CBF at a time of great change, and the pace of change has only accelerated in the 16 years since. Changes in Baptist life, changes in technology, changes in worship styles, changes in how churches "do church," a struggling economy that has yet to recover, the aging of the generations that had stalwartly populated both pew and pulpit for so long, and the coming-to-age of the millenial generation that has challenged church leaders to give them good reasons to stay in church as they grew to adulthood.

These changes - and more - challenge today's leaders of every Baptist institution and church, large and small. Most have had to face decreases in financial support and been forced to make painful decisions to survive. CBF hasn't been immune, as it has had to cut back on funding missionaries as well as operational staff. Neither has it been alone; note last week's news that membership in the Southern Baptist Convention had declined for the fifth straight year. It's been tough all around.

But for 16 years, through all of these challenges, Daniel Vestal has provided CBF with stable leadership marked by a consistent commitment to sharing Christ with the world. His is a legacy of strong leadership through humility and generosity of spirit. He explained his vision of the "missional community" in Chapter 6 of his book, Being the Presence of Christ: A Vision for Transformation:
Christian community is a means to an end. It is to represent, serve, and proclaim the kingdom of God. Its goal is not to build up an institution or to enlarge its membership or even to enjoy its own existence. Rather, the purpose of Christian community is faithfulness to God's mission in the world. Its very identity and essence define it as a missional community.
"Faithfulness to God's mission in the world" - that pretty well sums up Daniel Vestal's life and ministry, including his stewardship of CBF as executive coordinator.

So, as Daniel preaches his final sermon Friday evening as CBF executive coordinator, followed by a reception in his honor, we celebrate a life and ministry committed to the Lordship of Christ and the sharing of Christ's Gospel around the world, a life and ministry marked by uncompromised integrity and unshakable commitment to the principles that have undergirded the Baptist movement for over 400 years.

Thank you, Daniel, and God bless you as you turn the page to the next chapter of your ministry and continue to be faithful to God's calling in your life.

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